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Twentieth-Century Literature

In Defense of Vineland  :  Pynchon, Anarchism, and the New Left

In Defense of Vineland : Pynchon, Anarchism,


and the New Left

Michael O’Bryan

M y title promises a defense of a particular text, but Vineland (1990)


merits consideration not only on the grounds of its literary quality but
because examining its initial critical reception reveals ways that narratives
about radical politics in the late twentieth century need closer scrutiny.
I hope for my defense to make a movement from particular to general,
indicating that rethinking our critical response to a fictionalization of
a recent historical period might also lead us to rethinking our sense of
that period itself. This fourth novel, appearing in 1990 after Pynchon’s
seventeen years of relative silence, drew a cool critical reception. It had
initial defenders—Salman Rushdie and Richard Powers, for example—
and a few critics have defended it since (notably, John McClure, James
Berger, and N. Keith Booker), but they comprise the minority against a
general sense that the long-awaited follow-up to Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
was less historically conscious, less politically critical, and more senti-
mental than that gold standard of postmodern fiction. This feeling was
widespread enough upon the novel’s appearance that a conference panel
of prominent Pynchon critics convened to address it. The panel’s work
was expanded into a collection of essays, The Vineland Papers (1994), which
still constitutes a sizeable portion of the secondary literature on Vineland.
Most of those pieces defend the novel against the common criticisms, but
many still sound somewhat apologetic. Within around a half-decade of
the novel’s publication, the most significant sign of its disrepute was the
critical silence surrounding it. Searches in databases of literary criticism
show that while the Pynchon industry continued producing work on
other pieces, noteworthy treatments of Pynchon’s fourth novel, with the
few exceptions mentioned above, virtually disappear for a ten-year span
beginning in the late nineties. Discussions of the novel have become

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© 2016 Hofstra University DOI 10.1215/0041462X-3485002
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Michael O’Bryan

slightly more common in the past few years ( Dussere 2010, Hutchinson
2008), indicating potentially receptive grounds for reevaluating Vineland’s
status in the Pynchon canon.
In reevaluating the novel’s political and historical merit, I will suggest
that its initial critical reception was colored by the novel’s appearance
in the midst of a volatile time for historical scholarship of the sixties.
Much of this work was still produced by former participants in radical
movements, but the transition from the conflicted and cynical seventies
into the rise of Reagan’s populist conservatism pressed scholars to
shift from accounts of the New Left’s transformation or redirection
into explanations of the New Left’s near total collapse. In this milieu,
Vineland was often treated as an artifact of sixties counterculture and
represented as evidence in one account or another of the period, when,
in fact, this retrospective novel attempts a historiographic intervention
in our conversation about the period. That intervention has gone largely
unnoticed because its political position—anarchism—has been elided too
often by historical accounts of the sixties.These accounts, often polemical,
tend to polarize into two camps: first, postmodern defenses of the rise of
identity politics and radical subjectivitist philosophies as antidotes to the
crypto-chauvinisms of the New Left, and, second, more-or-less classically
Marxist contentions that the New Left collapsed because of its decentral-
ism and ideological heterogeneity, because, that is, it failed to remain
strictly Marxist or socialist. Literary assessments that stem from either
sort of account have thus looked past Vineland’s specifically anarchist
politics and the historical pressures to which the novel attributes those
politics, imputing to the book political vagary and a lack of historical
consciousness.
These oversights in both Marxist and postmodern readings are
particularly unfortunate because the novel’s anarchist intervention in
the historiography of sixties radicalism aims to encompass both readings
in a productive mutual tension. Anarchism is particularly useful for this
intervention because it is an attempt to enact a left-wing concept of social
justice through a dialectical mediation of individualist philosophy and
collectivist economics. Arising contemporaneously with Marxism in the
1840s, anarchist philosophers and organizations accept Marxian economic
critique, but they believe that the cohesion of a democratic society must
stress a universal and mutual respect for individual freedom. A complicated
mixture of cooperation and rivalry has thus existed between anarchists
and Marxists since the years of the First International (1864–1876), when

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Twentieth-Century Literature

In Defense of Vineland  :  Pynchon, Anarchism, and the New Left

factions rallied behind the ideas of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and
Marx himself, clashing over whether or not a people’s revolution could
ever occur within the structure of a nation-state whose hierarchical
centralism anarchists find inherently coercive. The Bakunin-Marx split
has played itself out repeatedly. From the rivalry between the Industrial
Workers of the World ( IWW) and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)
in the 1920s to that between Yippies and Leninist cadres of Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS) in the sixties, virtually every major era of leftist
radicalism since then has been structured on a spectrum of Marxist and
anarchist impulses, caught between competing claims of centralized orga-
nizational discipline on one side and decentralist grassroots confederacy
on the other. Broadly speaking, the Old Left was a Marxist phenomenon,
and the New Left was, at first, a largely anarchist one. Vineland, however,
focuses on the late sixties, when Old Left organizational strategies
reasserted themselves and the student protest and antiwar movements
collapsed under the strain of the conflict between anarchist and Leninist
elements. The intellectual history of the statist Left is well known, but
Pynchon suggests that a full appreciation of the challenges of the era is
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impossible without a grasp on the anarchist disposition.
I begin with a survey of negative critical responses to Vineland, cor-
relating their assessments of the novel to historical studies of sixties radi-
calism, which often cite Pynchon, and Vineland specifically, as examples
of the New Left’s shortcomings. Showing that Pynchon’s fourth novel
itself makes exactly these criticisms, I uncover in the second section its
engagement with the New Left as a resurgence of anarchism in American
history, arguing it displays more historical sensitivity and political acumen
than has often been allowed. Though it concurs with well-known criti-
cisms of sixties radicalism, Vineland represents as historically defensible
the New Left’s anarchist preferences for decentralism, individualism, and
ideological fluidity. Historians like Todd Gitlin might refer vaguely to the
counterculture’s disorder as “anarchist,” but there is a more philosophically
specific sense of  “anarchism” that runs through foundational sixties texts
like “The Port Huron Statement” (1962) and the work of Paul Goodman,
to which Pynchon and critics like Gitlin both owe debts. My final
section argues that Pynchon’s historiographic intervention enjoins future
generations of radicals to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors
by maintaining a difficult balance. Countercultural individualists should
feel responsible to a greater movement, and Marxist revolutionaries
should nurture an anarchist impulse toward individual freedom; to quote
2
McClintic Sphere, from V. : “keep cool but care.”

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Vineland’s reception and the postmortem


of the New Left
Published in 1990, Vineland’s narrative present is 1984 (an Orwellian
overtone ubiquitously observed in criticism of the novel), but much of
its drama unfolds through flashbacks to the late sixties, some of which
contain characters reminiscing about the 1930s. The chronological
layering contributes to typically Pynchonian formal complexity, but
it clearly invites comparison between life in the radical heyday of the
swinging sixties and the radical nadir of the Reagan eighties. Some early
reviews found in this structure a welcome shift toward political clarity;
Salman Rushdie claimed that “what is new here is the willingness with
which Pynchon addresses, directly, the political development of the United
States, and the slow (but not total) steamrollering of a radical tradition
many generations and decades older than flower power” (1990, 37).
Others disagreed that this portrait of the sixties offered political
clarity. Alec McHoul discerned in Vineland “60s nostalgic quietism,” a
yearning for the lost salad days of free love and drugs with little concern
for the political challenges of the era (1990, 98). In a review of  Vineland,
Brad Leithauser remarked that Pynchon “taps into what for many people
remains an era of indestructible nostalgia. How delightful it is as one’s
joint-passing youth is now revealed to be no mere idyll but—wow!
neat!—the stuff of great art” (1990, 10). Most critics have been more
kind, seeing attempts to criticize both a repressive US government and
an ineffectual counterculture, but many, like Alan Wilde, still feel it does
not resolve into a coherent whole: “less evenhanded than discordant
.  .  .  sinuous twists and turns [between sympathy and critical distance]
hint at just how indeterminate Pynchon’s rendering of the sixties is
throughout the novel” (1991, 172).
“Nostalgia” became an albatross hung on the novel’s critical
reputation. Admitting that he does not like the novel, in his contribu-
tion to The Vineland Papers Joseph Tabbi acknowledges that Pynchon’s
“deliberately conventional 60s nostalgia” generates a formal irony meant
to criticize such nostalgia, but he feels this is undermined by “a slapdash,
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indeterminate ending” (1994, 90, 97). Even sympathetic contributions to
The Vineland Papers grapple with nostalgia, laboring to uncover political
4
insight underneath surface gloss. A year later, James Berger undertook his
own defense of Vineland by arguing that its supposed nostalgia performs
an important politically protective function (1995).

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Twentieth-Century Literature

In Defense of Vineland  :  Pynchon, Anarchism, and the New Left

If much critical work insightfully illuminates the novel’s structural


features and aesthetic allegiances, the common allegations of ahistoricism
and hippie nostalgia, I suggest, simply do not hold water. I will elaborate
this argument shortly, but first we should observe the close resemblance
between these criticisms of Vineland and contemporaneous criticisms
of the sixties counterculture. Pynchon’s fourth novel was timely insofar
as it appeared in the midst of a period in which the retreat of the
American Left seemed increasingly long-lived, and historical studies
of the sixties responded by examining the extent to which the New
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Left’s shortcomings contributed to this state of affairs. The general
story of the New Left’s rise and fall is likely a familiar one, but it bears
summarizing in order to demonstrate that many tendencies imputed to
Vineland—its exchange of political action for countercultural display,
its reluctance to place the sixties into a broader social history, its lack
of a clear political agenda—resemble tendencies imputed to the New
Left and counterculture as a whole. From its inception, the Movement
was a fractious and wildly heterogeneous phenomenon, but its maturity
in the late sixties is often characterized as broadly encompassing a split
between what Stanley Aronowitz calls “the two countercultures,” each
of which gravitates toward one side or another of the tension between
Marxism and anarchism (1984, 24). Around June 1962, a group of college
students, mostly veterans of the civil rights movement, drafted “The Port
Huron Statement,” a manifesto that widened the group’s focus from
racial equality to many other American political issues, such as nuclear
proliferation, military imperialism, middle-class political passivity, and the
quiescence of the labor movement. The SDS came to prominence and
remained one of the primary organizing bodies of sixties radicalism for
the duration of the era.
But generational character shifts quickly at universities, and it was
mere years before a new sort of rebel joined the older “red-diaper babies”
and civil rights veterans.These newcomers were, according to former SDS
president Todd Gitlin, “middle-class, less intellectually bred. . . . Children
of Goldwater voters, . . . they were instinctive anarchists. . . . When they
discovered alienation, they looked to Thomas Pynchon more than Karl
Marx, John Lennon more than V. I. Lenin” ( [1987] 1993, 186). Gitlin
here reproduces the binary opposition that I have claimed presides over
the history of the Left; Marx and Lenin are opposed by Pynchon and
the Beatles, manifestations of an anarchist impulse toward spontaneity,
individualism, and cultural expression rather than political policy and

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goal-oriented futurism. Typically anarchist in demanding the immediate


and total clearing away of all extant social institutions, this second
counterculture expanded the already broad agenda of SDS into an assault
on the entire bourgeois Geist, politicizing expressions of individual
freedom—drug experimentation, free love, youth culture, and the spirit
of rock ’n’ roll. The Movement’s ranks swelled, but the counterculture’s
individualism and spontaneity made national organization and long-term
planning more difficult than for the well-oiled left-wing machines of the
past. Many “politicos” were torn in their loyalties; if the history of modern
radicalism manifests a tension between Marxist and anarchist impulses,
individual radicals often slide along the spectrum. As counterculturalism
outpaced political discipline in the Movement at large, the politicos
responded by trying to theorize how a variegated people’s movement
might be held together, reproducing the tension between Marxist central-
ism and anarchist decentralism. By the late sixties, SDS had broken into at
least three factions: two of them, the Maoist Progressive Labor Party ( PLP)
and the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), sought to transform the
group into a Leninist revolutionary vanguard, while a third, a coalition
of various identity positions led by an emergent feminist movement, was
drawn to the anarchist principles of identity and decentralism, correctly
arguing that the New Left largely remained a site of white male privilege.
In 1969, SDS imploded under the tension; Progressive Labor attenuated
into meaninglessness, Revolutionary Youth became the infamous Weather
Underground, and the remaining radicals assimilated into mainstream
Democratic politics or stayed in academia, contributing to the emergence
of postmodern critical theories and pedagogies. Rudderless and adrift, the
less political mass of hippies graduated, took practical jobs, gazed back at
their errant youth with nostalgia, and voted Reagan into office twice.
In the wake of this political history, scholarly commentary on
the Movement inevitably varies in its political and critical allegiances.
However, something like the account sketched above is common to
most prominent historical studies, even to the extent that Pynchon is
often deployed as Gitlin uses him, as a talisman to invoke the counter-
culture’s most unproductive features—individualism, political vagary,
and insufficient historical consciousness. That Pynchon’s body of work
is emblematic for the self-destruction of the American Left is a critical
canard that persists today, finding its way into many influential literary-
historical constructions of the post-1945 period. Pynchon appears front
and center, for instance, in Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s “Do You
Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left,” which argues

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Twentieth-Century Literature

In Defense of Vineland  :  Pynchon, Anarchism, and the New Left

that the New Left’s rejection of the Old stemmed from a frustration with
a “programmatic, managerial ethos redolent of the thirties,” and from its
dedication to spontaneity and individualism (2005, 436). As anarchist
groups like the Yippies and Diggers exacerbated these preferences, the
counterculture began to put its hope in “revolution without a script,” a
“widely shared retreat away from public debate and civic engagement
and toward a commitment to personal freedom” that left the Movement
unable or unwilling to combat New Right social and economic policies
that were actively dismantling the legacy of the New Deal ( 445, 459).
In McCann and Szalay’s view, much of postmodern literature
embodies these confused cultural values, and they argue elsewhere that,
even if Vineland is “the most politically incisive of his novels,” it still
provides “a model of sentimental community that reflects . . . impatience
with political complexity” (2009, 151). Though none of the parties
would appreciate the association, such arguments sound much like
Richard Rorty’s in Achieving Our Country, especially his view that since
“the old alliance between the intellectuals and the unions broke down in
the course of the Sixties . . . [the American Left has] permitted cultural
politics to supplant real politics, and [has] collaborated with the Right
in making cultural issues central to public debate” (1998, 14). Again,
the ultimate target is academic and literary postmodernism, and, again,
Vineland appears as a primary example (6–10).
If the late eighties saw the academic postmortem of the New Left
become a staging ground for claims about what elements of the contem-
porary Left were counterproductive, Pynchon’s iconic status as a sixties
author seems to have overshadowed the text of Vineland itself, which was
treated as an anachronistic artifact of the era rather than as a commentary
upon it. Indeed, the novel became something of a Rorschach test for
critical accounts that disparage the 1960s Left. McCann and Szalay
thus join Rorty in citing it as an example of postmodern literature’s
counterproductive tendency to forego political clarity and realist
technique in favor of psychological retreat, artistic experimentation, and
subjectivism. Critics much more sympathetic to postmodern literature
and critical theories, such as McHoul and Tabbi, evaluate the novel just
as negatively, but they argue that the novel works in virtually the opposite
way, departing, as they see it, from the postmodern aesthetics of Pynchon’s
earlier work.They disdain what Tabbi calls a “debased literary realism” that
“has chosen the route of political directness rather than increased literary
complication, topical reference rather than mythic density” (1994, 91, 93).

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Still, appearing after a lengthy silence, this first novel to come from
this sixties author since the end of the long sixties was clearly intended
to take a seat at the discussion table with regard to the political legacy of
the era. One of the stranger features of the early critical conversation on
the novel, then, is that it rehearses criticisms of sixties radicalism made in
the accounts mentioned above, despite the fact that Vineland itself makes
many of the same criticisms of the sixties. The novel was misread in this
way, I suggest, because it situates its critique of the sixties in an anarchist
framework: recuperating philosophical individualism from conclusions
that it selfishly lacks social consciousness, this framework theorizes socially
contingent individualism that requires a mutual respect among individuals
in a community, and thus stipulates collectivist economics. Uninformed
by a coherent understanding of anarchism as a politically specific mode
of thinking and a conscious response to Marxist collectivism, Vineland’s
early critics thus tend to uncritically reproduce, over and over, Marxist
polemics against individualism, leaving little distinction between, say,
Emma Goldman and Barry Goldwater.
This critical blind spot is especially striking because the novel is in
fact blunt in its political messages, sometimes almost preachy, and direct
about the counterculture’s shortcomings. Of many examples, two in par-
ticular accord with the contemporaneous academic portrait of the era. In
the first, Isaiah Two-Four—punk rocker, representative of eighties youth
dissidence, and boyfriend of Prairie Wheeler—tells Prairie’s father, the
aging hippy Zoyd, “Whole problem ‘th you folks’s generation, . . . nothing
personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there
for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the
Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America,
el deado meato . . . sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970
dollars—it was way too cheap” ( Pynchon 1990, 373). Isaiah sounds here
much like Gitlin, who begins his touchstone work with a list of several
“unavoidable dilemmas” that confronted the counterculture, including
his sense that “the rock ‘n’ roll generation, having grown up on popular
culture, took images very seriously indeed; beholding itself magnified
in the funhouse mirror, it grew addicted to media which had agendas
of their own—celebrity-making, violence-mongering, sensationalism”
( [1987] 1993, 5, 6). Pynchon’s youth dissident, sufficiently removed in time
from the sixties, can articulate a criticism of the era’s politics that concurs
precisely with Gitlin’s historical narrative of the era. Pynchon’s accession
to this narrative explains why, with more references to contemporary
popular media, real and imaginary, than any of Pynchon’s other books,

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Twentieth-Century Literature

In Defense of Vineland  :  Pynchon, Anarchism, and the New Left

Vineland also echoes Fredric Jameson’s argument, in “Periodizing the


60s” (1984), that the New Left was a last gasp of resistance against a post-
modern era of global capitalism, where the ability to historicize has been
coopted by media’s commodification of countercultural self-positioning.
A second instance of Vineland ’s critique of the sixties counterculture
has the narrator describing federal prosecutor Brock Vond’s remarkable
success at running a federal snitch program that flips hippies:
another selling point for hiring on would turn out to be this
casual granting of the wish implied in the classical postcollegiate
Dream of Autumn Return, to one more semester, one more
course credit required. . . . Brock Vond’s genius was to have
seen in the activities of the sixties Left not threats to order but
unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming
youth revolution . . . Brock saw the deep . . . need only to stay
children forever, safe inside some extended national Family.
( Pynchon 1990, 268–69)
A youth culture that celebrates sexual freedom and chemical excess,  Vond
realizes, could harbor political dilettantes and purposeless party chasers
as easily as it could genuine revolutionaries. An agent of a right-wing
government (Vond works under the Nixon and Reagan administrations)
forms a fifth column within the counterculture by exploiting some of
its members’ enthusiasm for personal freedom detached from any coher-
ently articulated politics. Pynchon’s alignment with scholarly consensus
emerges, too, in the novel’s depiction of the eighties, when a paternalistic
Reaganite government is presented as having won the long game against a
set of aging hippie characters, who pursue quiet lives of privacy in one of
the few pockets of uncharted land left in the nation, hiding when possible
from a federal government steadily encroaching on First and Fourth
Amendment protections with an increasingly paramilitarized police force.
Vineland  ’s specific criticisms of the counterculture’s long-term
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political inefficacy have not gone entirely unobserved. Still, even these
pieces mostly insist that Pynchon fails to suggest a coherent counter-
politics to rectify the New Left’s missteps. In the following sections,
however, I argue that the novel does indeed offer a historically situated
politics that both justifies the emergence of the New Left and suggests
important insights for our own historical moment. This intervention
has been largely missed for a few reasons. First, while retrospectives of
the sixties mix admiration and criticism, as time proceeds the ratio has
shifted to favor the latter. By 1990, Vineland was excessively rosy for some

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tastes because it mitigates its criticisms of the counterculture’s political


dissolution with a historicized justification of New Left’s individualism
and decentralism. Its balance thus rests closest to Wini Breines’s earlier
insistence that we “recognize in the new left of the sixties both a living
heritage and dilemma to resolve” (1982, 152). Second, the novel’s positive
political vision is identifiably anarchist, and the relationship of anarchist
thinking to both Pynchon’s fiction and the history of the New Left has
been largely unappreciated. In the next section, then, I will examine the
anarchist elements that inhabit several intellectual justifications of the
New Left. I will then turn to Vineland, where the central plot event, the
campus rebellion at the College of the Surf, presents the anarchist side of
an opposition between anarchist and neo-Leninist factions.

The New Left’s anarchist impulse


The New Left emerged in an era when radical youth had a number of
reasons to distrust the traditional institutions of the Left, and its newness
derives largely from its attempt to find alternative models of left-wing re-
sistance. By the early sixties, the Cold War was entrenched and the atroci-
ties of the Soviet state had reached the light of day, rendering it difficult to
sympathize with the Marxist state. In the US, the Democratic Party was
complicit in pursuing military aggression across the world and tepid in
its support for civil rights. McCarthyism had led labor unions, which had
traditionally pushed Democratic coalitions leftward, to divest themselves
of any appearance of radicalism, and their monolithic bureaucratic
management had worked itself into often cozy deals with business leaders.
According to Aronowitz’s firsthand account, these dissatisfactions with
organizational structures led SDS to an “aspiration to absolute sovereignty
of the individual, whose power had been undercut by representative
government, trade union bureaucracies, and large, impersonal institu-
tions” (1984, 32). Suspecting that centralized hierarchy breeds oppression
regardless of ideology, the New Left took up the century-old anarchist
argument against the Marxist conviction that revolution was compatible
with the state. This negative principle of anti-institutionalism naturally
led to a positive principle of robust individualism, which Aronowitz
identifies as an energizing force in the Movement. We can be prone in
the contemporary academy to automatically associate individualism with
the Right, and yet leftist adaptation of philosophical individualism has
a long history in anarchist thought. In 1902, for instance, the anarchist
philosopher and naturalist Peter Kropotkin argued, in Mutual Aid, that the

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In Defense of Vineland  :  Pynchon, Anarchism, and the New Left

necessity of collective social action lies in the evolutionary principle of


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individual self-interest. In fact, according to Doug Rossinow, Tom and
Casey Hayden, early in their careers, were specifically concerned with
correcting the intellectual tendency to attribute all forms of individual-
ism to the right wing, so that “in addition to the liberal-conservative
axis, political life here [in the circles in which the Haydens moved] was
organized upon a libertarian-authoritarian axis” (1998, 32). Libertarian
leftism, mediating between individualist philosophy and collectivist
economics, coincides with anarchism, and it is no surprise that Gitlin
recalls Casey Hayden’s self-identification as an anarchist throughout the
sixties ( [1987] 1993, 166–68).
If the politicos could never fully shake the late counterculture, it was
thus partly because both groups shared anarchist enthusiasm for decen-
tralism, voluntarism, and ideological fluidity. Largely authored by Tom
Hayden, the founding document of SDS, “The Port Huron Statement,”
suggests that the endemic indifference of the centralized bureaucracies of
the Left must be tempered by individualist values. The statement asserts
that “men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction,
self-understanding, and creativity” (Students 1962, 332). However, we
must not mistake such individualist principles for a wholesale rejection
of political organization; the document explicitly envisions an alternative
to right-wing “egoistic individualism.” Indeed, it advocates beginning
from individual commitment and moving outward toward collective or-
ganization. A definition of SDS’s core concept, “participatory democracy,”
follows: “As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of
individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual
share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of
his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and
provide the media for their common participation.” This statement thus
clearly articulates anarchism’s active dialectic between individualism and
collectivism.
Its leadership may not have understood SDS as an anarchist group,
but its participatory democracy rejected the Old Left’s Marxist dedication
to representative centralism and party politics in favor of voluntarist
and grassroots confederations of individuals—a fundamentally anarchist
structure. And many self-identified anarchists in the era, hearing
of  “participatory democracy,” recognized fellow travelers.The sixties, after
all, are the decade in which Noam Chomsky began to theorize about
anarcho-syndicalism, sympathizing in 1966 with the anarchist position
that, while Marxian economic critique held much value, historically

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speaking “the Marxists totally misunderstood the prospects for the devel-
opment of a freer society, or worse, [failed to understand] that they would
undermine these prospects in their own class interest as state managers
and ideologists” ( [1966] 1987, 20–21). Murray Bookchin, in the thirties
a member of several Communist organizations, wrote in 1984 that “the
60s are particularly significant because they tried to deal with problems
that 30s radicalism left entirely unresolved” (1984, 192)—problems, as he
saw them, stemming from the antidemocratic potentialities of the Old
Left’s centralism, which led Bookchin, in the sixties, to anarchism. At the
1969 SDS national conference, he would distribute “Listen, Marxist!,”
an individualist and decentralist polemic (later collected in his book
Post-Scarcity Anarchism), arguing that “at a time when hierarchy as such
is being brought into question, we hear the hollow demands for ‘cadres,’
‘vanguards’ and ‘leaders.’ At a time when centralization and the state have
been brought to the most explosive point of historical negativity, we hear
the hollow demands for a ‘centralized movement’ and a ‘proletarian dic-
tatorship’” ([1969] 1971, 175). Around the same time, Gil Green, another
Old Left veteran, expressed in The New Radicalism: Anarchist or Marxist?
(1971) exactly this historical tension between Marxist and anarchist
impulses, even though he landed squarely on the side of Communism:
“much of the floundering and confusion within the movement arises
from the existence within it of two currents . . . those who begin to see
the struggle in Marxist class terms and those who view it in anarchist,
individualist terms” (1971, 15).
For Pynchon’s part, his sympathies lie with the anarchist currents
in the sixties and in the long history of the Left, but Vineland largely
focuses on the late-sixties moment that prompted the above texts, when
neo-Leninist factions of SDS had begun to respond to the decentralist
heterogeneity of the anarchic New Left by attempting to reassert the cen-
tralized organizational discipline of the Old Left. Another text from this
moment, public intellectual Paul Goodman’s The New Reformation (1970),
also paints the early New Left as an anarchist renaissance, and sees in the
Movement’s later years a growing conflict between anarchist decentralism
and Leninist hierarchy. Goodman’s account is especially relevant here
because his central example of the tension between anarchist and Leninist
impulses concerns the 1968 student uprising at Columbia University, an
event that strikingly parallels the central plot event of Vineland, the student
uprising at the fictional College of the Surf. Goodman begins his chapter
on anarchism and the New Left quite boldly: “Of the political thought
of the past century, only anarchism or, better, anarcho-pacifism—the

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philosophy of institutions without the State and centrally organized


violence—has consistently foreseen the big shapes and gross dangers of
present advanced societies, their police, bureaucracy, excessive centraliza-
tion of decision making, social engineering, and inevitable militarization”
(1970, 143). Citing persistent economic disparity in the US and Soviet
violence against its civilian populace, freely referring to “power elites”
(a term coined by influential sociologist C. Wright Mills), he attempts
to argue that neither Communist nations nor capitalist democracies
can “do well by [their] poor and outcast.” Like Bookchin, he objects to
the centralization, bureaucracy, and organizational force inherent to the
nation-state in both its capitalist and Leninist variations, and contrasts
these tendencies to the New Left’s fundamental political commitments,
which Goodman correctly associates with the core of historical anarchist
practice: “local power, community development, rural reconstruction,
decentralist organization, [and] town-meeting decision-making” (145).
Both Goodman and Bookchin are typically anarchist, as they view
this sort of bottom-up, grassroots organization as the only means by
which a movement can sufficiently accommodate individual perspectives
enough to remain truly representative of its members. Also like Bookchin,
then, Goodman theorizes against Leninist “cadre” organization: a central-
ized revolutionary movement led by hierarchically coordinated cadres
functions not to absorb and represent its members’ views but rather as
a mechanism “by which small groups of human beings are transformed
into sociological entities to execute the unitary will of the organization”
(156). Centralism thus obscures or even suppresses local specificity
and individual perspective in favor of party lines, factional loyalty, and
sweeping historical narratives. Observing that sixties radicals were torn
between anarchist and Leninist sentiment, Goodman is disturbed by
how those elements that perceived themselves as Leninist revolutionary
vanguards were “bent on seizing Power” and “want[ed] their turn on top
in the Power structure, which [was] all they [knew]; they [thought] of
using their youthful solidarity and fun-and-games ingenuity to make a
Putsch” (147).
For Goodman, the Columbia uprising becomes a representative
example of a grassroots anarchist action ultimately taken hostage by
Leninist centralism. Its prompting incident, the university’s acquisition of
a Harlem public park in order to build a gym with limited public access,
neatly triggered a number of anarchist impulses: hostility to bureaucratic
indifference, enthusiasm for local power and community identity, and
eagerness for theatrical direct action. SDS and the Student Afro Society

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formed a coalition to protest the university’s disrespect for the community,


pursuing an anarchist, bottom-up vision, where the issue stood for the
larger national struggle against racial segregation. At first, embodying for
Goodman “the functional anarchist [principle] of the natural right of
use by the users,” the action operated nonviolently and with ideological
heterogeneity, holding press conferences and nonhierarchical teach-ins
(151). However, the Leninist factions of SDS, as Goodman saw it, sought
to deliberately derail negotiations and provoke the police, sacrificing
practical advances on the local issue of land use in order to pursue grand
historical narratives of international class warfare: “the Kirk administration
and the authoritarians in S.D.S. seem to have engaged in an almost de-
liberate conspiracy to escalate their conflict and make the Leninist power
theory come true” (153). The conflict ended with a violent raid, with
mixed results. As the dust cleared, the university enacted progressive policy
changes, but revolutionaries like Mark Rudd developed an attachment
to militancy and Leninist power games, forming the notorious Weather
Underground and participating in the factional dismemberment of SDS
a year later.
At stake here isn’t the total historical accuracy of Goodman’s
account but, rather, Vineland’s remarkably similar understanding of the
New Left’s historical trajectory, where an unruly but largely sympathetic
anarcho-pacifist counterculture was undermined by Leninist centralists,
who, trying to assert genuinely needed discipline, alienated or brutalized
too many of their compatriots. The misreadings of the novel’s politics, I
suggest, thus reflect anarchism’s undertheorized status in the academy.
Although Pynchon is undeniably fascinated by anarchism—most of the
novels feature anarchist characters who are often clear objects of political
8
sympathy—critical engagements with his anarchism are rare. Though
Vineland does not explicitly dwell much on anarchism, many of its radical
characters are descendants of the Traverse family, several of whom are
anarchist radicals and act as protagonists in Against the Day (2006). The
connection helps illuminate how Pynchon represents a historical narrative
in line with Chomsky’s, Bookchin’s, and Goodman’s, where the New Left
was only the most recent irruption of anarchist activism in the history of
American radicalism.
That kinship comes into especially sharp focus by considering
Pynchon and Goodman in relation to the antistatism of George Orwell.
Goodman’s contention that mid-century state socialism had become
as indifferent to its subjects—even oppressive in a structurally similar

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fashion—as capitalist democracies should remind us of Orwell’s attempts


to engage the Left in self-criticism during an earlier era of radicalism.
In his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938), the
British author contends that the Soviet insistence on “a strong central
government in place of local committees” and on “a properly trained
and fully militarized army under a unified command” led to the “thesis
that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed
at in Spain was not workers’ control, but bourgeois democracy” ( [1938]
1952, 58, 51). As with Goodman, centralized state management appears in
Orwell’s work as a mechanism by which governments of the Left obstruct
the revolutionary potential of the individuals they represent. Though it is
difficult to summarize briefly Orwell’s relationship to anarchism, in this
context he sympathizes with the anarchist trade unions and militias, “the
9
only revolutionary party that was big enough to matter” (55).
Pynchon’s connection to Orwell’s antistatism is considerably more
explicit. One of Pynchon’s relatively few literary-critical exegeses is the
foreword to the 2003 reprint of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose
title, as has frequently been mentioned, also marks the year of Vineland’s
present. The frequency of this mention notwithstanding, Pynchon’s
foreword appeared during a period when his fourth novel received little
critical attention, and the essay’s usefulness in illuminating the novel’s
10
politics has gone largely unremarked. Of Orwell, Pynchon writes, “he
found an analogy between British Labour and the Communist Party
under Stalin—both, he felt, were movements professing to fight for the
working classes against capitalism, but in reality concerned only with
establishing and perpetuating their own power. The masses were there
to be used—for their idealism, their class resentments, their willingness
to work cheap—and to be sold out, again and again” ( Pynchon 2003,
ix). As an interpretation of Orwell the statement seems mostly accurate
but, here, we should note the strong degree to which Pynchon’s Orwell
anticipates the understandings of centralized revolution we have seen
articulated by various anarchist defenders of the New Left. In this
context, the essay appears to be at least as much a defense of Vineland’s
misunderstood politics as it is a reading of Orwell. Pynchon’s concern
that centralized revolutions sell out the masses “again and again” speaks to
his own moment of radicalism in the sixties, his sense that the Movement
was betrayed not only by hedonism and lack of discipline but also by the
power struggles of Leninist Marxist factions struggling for control over
that wayward individualism.

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From an anarchist perspective, Goodman’s account of the Columbia


uprising clearly parallels the protest at Vineland’s College of the Surf,
where we see the rise and fall of the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll
3
( PR , for short). Just as the real action was a grassroots protest against
how bureaucratic institutions used lopsided property laws to trample
the rights of individual communities, so the novel’s protest begins with
a local issue—police brutality against a student with marijuana—but
blossoms into a larger critique of the College of the Surf itself, which, as
it turns out, is a prop in an elaborate real estate scam: “so, in the name of
the people, the kids decided to take it back, and knowing the state was in
on the scheme at all levels, including the courts, where they’d never get
a fair deal, they chose to secede from California and become a nation of
their own” (1990, 209). Events at Columbia were captured by a group of
filmmakers affiliated with the radical collective Newsreel, which produced
the documentary Columbia Revolt (1968); most of the radical characters
in Pynchon’s novel are present at the PR3 protest to record the action
for their own film collective, 24fps. Columbia Revolt is still accessible on
the Internet and in the Newsreel archive; the documentary in Vineland
remains in the possession of the 24fps archivist, who screens it for Prairie
Wheeler, to introduce her to her mother’s radical activities.
Tellingly, Vineland’s plot parallels Goodman’s account of tension in
3
the Columbia revolt between anarchist and Leninist factions. In PR ,
the ideologically militant central organization of the Marxist impulse
is embodied by Rex Snuvvle, while the anarchist impulse is embodied
by Weed Atman. Weed, we are told, “ambled into celebrity” (1990, 205)
and, leading by personal example, remains curious, tolerant, and cautious,
representing the position in “The Port Huron Statement” that “the
object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s
own” (Students 1962, 332). Weed thus “preach[es] humane revolution,”
endorsing the sort of anarcho-pacifism that Goodman preferred and
decrying institutional abuses of individual lives: “in this country, nobody in
power gives a shit about any human life but their own.This forces us to be
humane—to attack what matters more than life to the regime and those it
serves, their money and their property” ( Pynchon 1990, 229). The politico
counterpoint to Weed’s anarchism, Rex, represents the various Leninist
Marxist factions in vogue in the late sixties. He gravitates to the fictional
3
Bolshevist Leninist Group in Vietnam (207), tries to bring the PR radicals
to membership in the Trotskyist Fourth International (207, 229–30), and,
like those in the Columbia uprising connected to the nascent Weather
Underground, seeks an alliance with armed black nationalists (230–31).

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In contrast to Weed’s “humane revolution,” Rex, in what seems


a parody of the Maoist PLP’s rhetoric, describes “the Revolution as a
progressive abstinence, in which you began by giving up acid and pot,
then tobacco, alcohol, sweets—you kept cutting down on sleep, doing
with less, you broke up with lovers, avoided sex, after a while even gave
up masturbating—as the enemy’s attention grew more concentrated, you
11
gave up your privacy, freedom of movement” (229). As we have seen,
Vineland concurs with the historical consensus that the escalating energies
of the ruling class required a concomitant increase in discipline among
sixties revolutionaries, but, in Rex’s view, the dictates of organizational
control subsume desire, love, everyday pleasures, eventually erasing the
most basic individual claims to privacy and freedom. The passage thus
resounds with Goodman’s and Bookchin’s objections to the Leninist cadre
on the grounds that it breaks down the individual aims and perspectives
that lend a people’s movement its strength, and it also channels Orwell’s
concern over revolutionary programs that, in mimicking state organiza-
tion, ultimately enact similar oppressions.
3
As events at the PR protest progress, Rex’s and Weed’s tactics diverge,
again following Goodman’s map. Forming the militant subcommittee,
“All-Damned Heat Off Campus, or ADHOC,” Rex envisions pushing
3
PR into a violent confrontation with the police (208). Weed still insists
on the anarcho-pacifist tactics of passive occupation and the maintenance
of free space. In one of the novel’s most cutting criticisms of sixties
radicalism, Brock Vond successfully exploits the friction between these
anarchist and Leninist approaches. He unveils his plan to do this to the
radical turncoat Frenesi Gates, Prairie’s mother, Zoyd’s ex-wife, and a
“third-generation lefty” who betrays her family and political comrades
for the power that Vond offers (279). At first, Frenesi is only Vond’s lover.
To convince her to turn state’s evidence,Vond assures her that, as an agent
of authoritarian state power, he understands the logic of control through
which revolutions can be corrupted:
“When these little left-wing kiddie games come apart,
things often turn dangerous.”
“And you’re thinking of my safety, Brock how sweet, but
come on, it’s only rock and roll.”
. . . 
“Sooner or later the gun comes out.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Because you never had the gun . . . but I always did.” (240)

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So they devise a plan by which Frenesi can test her movement’s chances
of remaining uncorrupted. Brock suggests that she hang the snitch jacket
on Weed and surreptitiously pass a firearm to Rex. After the stage is thus
set,Vond insists, Rex will take care of the rest himself.
3
When Frenesi agrees to Brock’s scheme, the inner circles of PR and
24fps disagree over whether or how Weed should be chastened, and she
tries to persuade the group to her thinking:
We either have 100% no-foolin’-around solidarity or it just
doesn’t work. Weed betrayed that . . . ‘cause he knew we can’t
shut anybody out, down that road is fuckin’ fascism, so we take
‘em all, the hypocrites and double agents and summertime
outlaws and all that fringe residue nobody else’ll touch. That’s
3
what PR started out as—so did we for that matter, remember?
The All-Nite Shelter. The lighted doorway out in the Amerikan
dark where nobody gets refused? Weed remembers. (235)
Frenesi identifies the New Left’s strength in the pluralistic, nondoc-
trinaire, and communitarian impulses that Goodman associates with
American anarchism. Strangely, she defends the New Left thus even as
her purpose is to sway her compatriots to cast out and punish a heretic.
The speech is thus an example of what Orwell calls “double think”
in his own novel set in 1984, as Frenesi uses rhetoric of nonviolent
inclusion to justify violent suppression, appealing to the authority of
a need for unitary identity—“100% no-foolin’ solidarity.” She begins
defending the Movement’s anarchist tolerance and openness but leaps to
a Leninist assertion of the need for strong and firm organizational control,
finally arriving at a linguistic maneuver that borrows from the very
authoritarians she deplores, reducing those who will not be controlled to
a dehumanizing euphemism, a “fringe residue.” Rex is persuaded by this
logic of organizational control, takes the gun from Frenesi, and shoots his
friend without trial or question (247). This provides  Vond with a legal
pretext, the police invade PR3, and a night of violent conflict ensues, as
the narrative poignantly suggests that the sixties are approaching their
final stage: “a common feeling, reported in interviews later, was of a clear
break just ahead with everything they’d known. Some said ‘end,’ others
‘transition,’ but they could all feel it approaching” (244).
Much has been written about Vineland as a novel of betrayal.12 While
the bulk of such work focuses on Frenesi’s betrayal of her family and
compatriots, and a minority examines how the counterculturalists betray

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themselves in losing sight of their principles, none has yet addressed Rex’s
betrayal of  Weed, which for Pynchon archetypically represents a common
way in which people’s movements undermine themselves. The sum-
mertime revolutionaries would eventually lose their focus and direction,
and the state was brutal in its repressions, but, in Vineland, the Movement
was lost when some leaders became so wedded to organized ideology
and strict control that they lost sight of the community bonds that had
initially constituted the Movement’s strength. In this respect, stressing
how centrally organized collectivism actually represses communities and
how collective liberation requires a basic appreciation of the individual,
Vineland is quintessentially anarchist.
The novel treats sixties radicalism with remarkable historical specific-
ity and with discernible political principles, and if its historical view of
radical politics can at times be difficult to apprehend, it is because the era
itself is complex and not easily summarized. Critics attuned to the novel’s
defenses of the early New Left’s grassroots and communitarian impulses
have tended to overlook the clear criticisms of the counterculture that
arise in the novel’s juxtaposition of the sixties and the eighties. While a
few commentators have noted, as I do, that Vineland mirrors scholarly
opinion by, as Colin Hutchinson writes, showing that “the adoption by
the New Left of the individualist-libertarian Zeitgeist made the New Left
in some ways complicit with the success of a New Right rhetorical model
based upon the notion of freedom from collective intervention” (2008,
37), those critics haven’t acknowledged the novel’s measured justification
of anarchist individualism, or they have noticed these justifications and
concluded that the novel’s politics are confused—a confusion I reread
as a tension expressing the difficult lessons facing historically conscious
revolutionaries from post-sixties generations. I have thus far tried to
show that virtually all commentators, Pynchon included, see in sixties
radicalism a fraught tension between individualism and collectivism, a
tension haunting all modern movements of the radical Left.Though many
of these commentators have pejoratively described the individualism
of the sixties as vaguely “anarchic,” Vineland is unique in that it rejects
the historiographic tendency to champion either individualism or col-
lectivism, suggesting instead that a democratic resistance movement must
dialectically mediate individual rights and collectivist responsibilities.This
mediation forms a politically specific and historically situated definition
of  “anarchism,” and in its conclusion the novel models just such a
community project.

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Vineland’s resolution and the future


of the Left in America
In Vineland’s lengthy final chapter, set entirely in its present, almost all of
the characters from every time period mentioned in the book, living and
dead (there are ghosts), converge on the Traverse-Becker family reunion.
This reunion provides a communal physical space for four generations
of left-wing radicals to interact—Jess Traverse and Eula Becker are aging
Wobblies; their daughter, Sasha, and her ex-husband, Hubbell, were union
workers in Hollywood in the fifties; their granddaughter, Frenesi, and her
ex-husband, Zoyd, were active in the sixties Movement; and their great-
granddaughter, Prairie, and her boyfriend, Isaiah, are punk rock youth of
the 1980s. Thus, as Erik Dussere has remarked, the characters in Vineland
“are tied to families and histories, and through those networks to the
two great moments of possibility for the American left in the twentieth
century: the thirties and the sixties” (2010, 582). I would add that the
novel compares the strengths and weaknesses of the collectivist Old
Left and the individualist New Left, framing the comparison in the late
twentieth century in order to gesture toward a future Left that might learn
from the lessons of these previous generations. From the perspective of the
early nineties, Vineland consistently criticizes the sixties counterculture for
subordinating concrete political objectives to individualism and cultural
play, even as the College of the Surf episode defends the grassroots ethos,
representing how some factions of the New Left reintroduced Old Left
organizational structures and thus also a fallibility common to centrally
organized revolutionary movements—the human will-to-power.Where at
its end Vineland imagines a space where several generations of the Left can
mediate between individualism and collectivism, in doing so, the novel
aligns itself with the philosophical project of anarchism.
The reunion brings together a varied range of individuals who are at
odds with each other but still recognize a communal tie: Zoyd and Flash
(two husbands of the same woman), two sets of estranged mothers and
daughters ( Sasha and Frenesi, Frenesi and Prairie), an estranged husband
and wife ( Hubbell and Sasha), and the comically mismatched private
investigators, DL and Takeshi. In the space of the reunion, all of these
characters devise interactions where individual perspectives and group
membership coexist productively. “‘Political family,’ Zoyd remark[s], ‘for
sure,’” to Flash as they watch attendees engage in an annual tradition
when “some shouted, some accompanied by spit, the old reliable names
good for hours of contention, stomach distress, and insomnia—Hitler,

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Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Mafia, CIA, Reagan, Kissinger”


( Pynchon 2009, 371–72). The reunion is a site of vigorous political
debate among generations, yet the conflict neither dissolves the union
nor resolves into a singular perspective, remaining the occasion by which
the community affirms itself as a community precisely by respecting
differences between members. Everyone there recognizes central power
structures as inherently oppressive—lumping together fascists, Democrats,
Republicans, and even organized crime—but this recognition doesn’t
induce the binary logic that swayed Rex and Frenesi, by which an
oppressive force requires an equally oppressive counterforce. Sharing
common political complaints, the attendees nonetheless unify behind no
monolithic ideology, valuing individual dissent even as they all stand in
a broader base of consensus. In this respect, they embody those anarchist
procedures cited by Goodman above: town hall meeting and rule by
consensus.
In an essay on Against the Day, Pynchon’s other novel about the
Traverse family, Henry Veggian discusses the Orwell foreword, asserting
that Pynchon’s fictions are “open to history without conceding absolute
authority to it”; that is, they recognize that collective solidarity requires
some level of shared metanarrative, but they also evince an “Orwellian
anarchism” that resists totalizing structures and wholesale historical
determinism (2008, 209–10). In Vineland, respect for intergenerational
history ritually brings various radicals together, but this responsibility to
history does not require a complete subordination of one’s individual
perspective. Ironically, then, despite the ire Rorty directs at Vineland, his
book pursues a kindred vision: an engaged public sphere that generates
“competition and argument between alternative forms of human life—a
poetic agon, in which jarring dialectical discords would be resolved in
previously unheard harmonies” (1998, 24–25). For Rorty, this vision stems
from the American pragmatist philosophy, of which he is an inheritor
and to which Goodman also laid claim as an anarchist. And Pynchon
too aligns his anarchism with pragmatism. Aside from spirited political
debate, the other annual tradition of the Traverse-Becker reunion consists
of Jess reading a passage of Emerson’s as cited in a “jailhouse copy”
of  William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902): “Secret
retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine
justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors
and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar.
Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote,
star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil” (quoted in

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Pynchon 1990, 369). A small but fascinating body of scholarly work has
examined the mutual influence of anarchism and James’s pragmatism, and
it is telling that Pynchon channels Emerson through James during this
13
scene of anarchic consensus building. The reference suggests that the
democratic anarchist decentralism we see in the reunion scene has a long
lineage in the American Left, which is reinforced by the fact that Jess, and
his relatives from Against the Day, are members of the anarcho-syndicalist
IWW rather than Trotskyite or Communist organizations. The attendees
of the reunion organize from the bottom up, stressing individual bonds
among revolutionaries, focusing on local concern. Jess’s annual reading
gestures out toward a larger struggle for class justice, and causally connects
large-scale victories in that struggle to the sort of committed local
organizing we see at the reunion.
The novel’s concluding focus on community bonding and local
organization has been criticized as a retreat from politics into the private
sphere ( McCann and Szalay 2009, 151–52; Tabbi 1994, 98–99; Strehle
1994, 114). But while it is true that Vineland does not outline specific
stances on matters of public policy, the novel’s goal is not to elaborate
political positions but to embody political practices, thereby making a dis-
tinction that is itself political. Certainly, that Jess’s copy of  William James
is a “jailhouse copy” seems to indicate that he and his associates have
been involved in direct action and practical political resistance. Moreover,
coordinated withdrawal from national systems can itself constitute passive
resistance to unjust power structures that rely on participation from the
masses. James Joll opens his classic history of anarchism by asserting that
“a withdrawal from the world implies a criticism of the world’s values.
And, moreover, the very act of withdrawal, especially if it led to the
establishment of a group of like-minded devotees, often involved those
who practiced it in measures that might seem dangerously subversive”
(1964, 17–18). Group withdrawal from economic structures is certainly
political when it manifests in a general strike, a favored anarchist tactic
roughly enacted by the loosely confederated communities in withdrawal
that communicate through WASTE in The Crying of Lot 49. Thus John
McClure, in Partial Faiths, identifies the reunion scene with the theory
and practice of contemporary anarcho-syndicalist and Green movements
(2007, 48–59) and, in a rebuttal to McCann and Szalay, argues that
“it was, of course, in just such communities, up and down the coast
from Northern California to Washington, that the grassroots American
antiglobalization movement was born” (2009, 136).

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If we understand anarchism as Chomsky does above—as a Marxian


economic critique that nonetheless mistrusts state organization—then the
dialectical interaction of individualist values and collective responsibility
lies at anarchism’s very core. Of course, it is perhaps an understatement
to say that achieving such balance is a delicate process. If bureaucratic
indifference and suppression of dissent have historically been elements
of collectivist forms of left-wing thinking, the dangers of anarchism stem
from how unbridled individualism and decentralism can render effective
organization impractical and codified principles unspeakable. Factions
within the counterculture and New Left certainly fell prey to these
dangers, and, with hindsight from the nineties, Vineland is certainly alert
to them. At its end, the novel thus suggests that future revolutionaries
should learn from the New Left’s collapse by renewing community bonds
and recognizing collective purpose—by revitalizing its anarchist impulse.
The Movement was a historically coherent response to the failure of Old
Left organizations to adequately represent their members, and, with the
episode at the College of the Surf, Pynchon cautions future revolutionar-
ies against the procedures of an older Marxism-Leninism.
Vineland gives the final word to Prairie Wheeler, representative of
a future generation of the American Left. In a notoriously ambiguous
ending, Prairie wanders from the reunion and thinks of Brock Vond,
saying, “It’s OK, rilly. Come on, come in. I don’t care. Take me anyplace
you want” (1990, 384). The impulse to excessive control always haunts
a collective movement, as it does Prairie here. In Vineland, an anarchist
temperament is the proper corrective to this problem. The novel’s end
is less a prognostication than it is a warning, and Pynchon’s foreword to
Orwell’s novel is instructive for understanding this. In an inventive close
reading, he notes that the infamous line, “He loved Big Brother,” is not,
in fact, the end of the novel (2003, xxv). An appendix on Newspeak
follows, written in the past tense and in common English, which Pynchon
interprets as a sign that the authoritarian structure of Oceania collapsed.
He concludes that Orwell wanted his son’s generation to know that
totalitarian structures are not inevitable, that social change is possible even
in the direst of circumstances. Vineland enjoins a new generation of the
Left to explore the histories of prior generations, stressing the urgency
of open dialogue and ideological tolerance, and eschewing both the
ideological rigidity of the Old Left and the disorganized spontaneity of
the New Left. In this way, Pynchon both examines the failure of the New
Left and calls up the lost history of anarchism to point a way forward.

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Conclusion
I have tried in this essay, first, to establish Vineland’s importance in
the Pynchon canon and, second, to indicate through my defense of
the novel ways in which we might begin to reexamine our sense of
American literature related to the New Left. For the first, I hope to have
demonstrated that Vineland is hardly a nostalgic lament for the idyllic
sixties counterculture; though the era is represented with affection, this
representation is framed in the narrative present of the eighties, with
clear-sighted criticisms of the counterculture’s short-sightedness and
organizational inefficiency. Moreover, the sixties themselves are presented
with political nuance and a fine eye for historical detail. The portrayal
engages actual historical events in the era, and considerable care is taken
to portray both the various ideological factions that constituted the
fractious Movement and the relationship of those factions to a broader
history of the American Left. For these reasons, I suggest Vineland forms
a capstone to the first half of Pynchon’s career, which in many ways itself
embodies the conflicted and difficult politics of the sixties counterculture.
The dissolution of the New Left was followed by a long silence from
Pynchon, until Vineland took its place in an active dissection of the
Movement’s collapse then occurring in the public sphere. By reevaluating
countercultural politics Vineland initiated the second stage of Pynchon’s
career, with Mason & Dixon (1997), Against the Day (2006), Inherent Vice
(2009), and the recent Bleeding Edge (2013) following in the years since.
The first two of these return to the familiar encyclopedic aesthetics for
which Pynchon’s early work is known, looking back not to the sixties
but to other historical periods germane to American politics. Vineland
forms the crucial pivot between Pynchon’s early and late career, resolving
the author’s relationship to the sixties and clearing the way for a broader
treatment of American history, and any comprehensive treatment of
Pynchon’s career must grapple with the novel’s centrality for his politics
and historical self-positioning.
As for my second objective, I hope that my treatment of Vineland’s
complicated politics might help spawn further study of anarchism’s
influence on twentieth-century American fiction, and particularly on
literature of the sixties. Historical treatments of the New Left generally
ground themselves in sympathy either for the postmodern movements
that both succeeded and critiqued sixties radicalism or for the socialist and
Marxist politics that preceded the period. In the former case, the New
Left’s anarchist decentralism and individuality are lauded for helping clear

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the way for postmodern conceptions of subjectivity, identity, and heteroge-


neity, even as lingering totalizations are criticized. In the latter, decentralist
countercultural activities figure as a fifth column that ultimately collapsed
a more traditional people’s movement and revealed the necessity of
returning to Old Left organizational discipline. Vineland acknowledges the
failures of the New Left’s decentralism while simultaneously historicizing
those tendencies as rational responses to Old Left centralism. It stakes a
claim for a future Left that mediates between the extreme poles of indi-
vidualism and collectivism, one grounded in anarchist theory and history.
By bringing anarchism to bear on our political narratives of the twentieth
century, Vineland helps us understand the history of the American Left
as a push and pull between anarchist impulses and Marxian programs
of revolution. Such a historical frame could support productive new
readings of many well-known texts associated with the American Left.

§
Michael O’Bryan is lecturer at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and
at Washington University in St. Louis. His book project, “Spontaneous and
Leaderless”:The Anarchist Impulse in Twentieth-Century Literary Experiment, argues
that aesthetic homologies between works of fiction across the twentieth
century stem from their shared engagement with the history of anarchist
theory and practice.

Acknowledgments
I would like to thank the two readers for Twentieth-Century Literature, James
Berger and Sue J. Kim, as well as William J. Maxwell and Dustin R. Iler, all of
whom provided vital feedback on early drafts of this article.

Notes
1. Readers interested in a primer on the history and practice of anarchist
thought should consult James Joll’s The Anarchists (1964) for a brief narrative
overview of the history of European anarchism, George Woodcock’s Anarchism
( [1962] 2004) for a treatment of anarchist history since the Spanish Civil War,
and Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible (1992) for an exhaustive com-
pendium of anarchist history in a global perspective. The best recent example
of the push and pull between anarchist and Marxist impulses that I describe
is represented in Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism,

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and Radical History (2008), a book-length dialogue between Andrej Grubačić, a


Hungarian anarchist dissident and sociology professor, and Staughton Lynd, a
Marxian luminary of the New Left.
2. I should note that the phrase “anarchist impulse” features several times
in Graham Benton’s 2002 dissertation, “Unruly Narratives: The Anarchist
Dimension in the Novels of  Thomas Pynchon.” When I discovered Benton’s
work, I was already developing this term in other writings to describe a
political inclination I see in work from writers across the twentieth century.
Though I use the term as I originally intended it, I credit Benton with
deriving a similar meaning of the term before I independently did so.
3. Two other essays that accompany Tabbi’s in The Vineland Papers grapple with
the charge of nostalgia by acknowledging its presence in the novel while using
formal analysis to uncover satirical intent within nostalgic scenes. See Safer
1994 and Solomon 1994, 164–66.
4. David Cowart finds that Pynchon deviates from his earlier work by
“commit[ing] himself to imagining the relentlessly ahistorical consciousness
of contemporary American society,” but he argues that this technique makes
an “implicit judgment of this shallowness” (1994, 8). Many of the other essays,
like Cowart’s, locate a politically or culturally problematic aspect of the novel
and then reveal it as an incisive social criticism upon closer inspection. Keeping
in mind the handful of negative reviews Vineland had already received in the
popular and academic press, I infer a posture of defense—be it explicit or
unconscious—in much of The Vineland Papers.
5. To name a few classics, the years between 1987 and 1998 saw the publica-
tion of  Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties:Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987); James
A. Miller’s Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago
(1987); Terry Anderson’s The Movement and the Sixties (1995); and Doug
Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity (1998). I do not mean to imply that
earlier accounts, such as Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS (1973) and Wini Breines’s
Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962–1968:  The Great Refusal
(1982), fail to critique the New Left or that the later studies do not look
favorably on some of the New Left’s values and goals. However, earlier studies
tend to share Breines’s desire to “recognize in the new left of the sixties both
a living heritage and dilemma to resolve” (1982, 152). In later studies, former
Movement participants might acknowledge the modest successes of the New
Left, but the sense of a “living heritage” is eclipsed by cautionary tales of how
people’s movements are sabotaged from within and from without. By the
mid-nineties, we begin to see the first work produced by scholars who did not
participate in sixties radicalism, with the result that scholars have become less
likely to find much redemptive potential in sixties radicalism.

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6. In one of the few early critical pieces that estimated the novel positively,
N. Keith Booker notes that it “consistently calls the radicals of the sixties to
task for lacking the theoretical awareness to constitute a genuinely effective
program of political change” (1993, 97).
7. Central to the long history of anarchist theory is the mutual necessity of
individual liberty and collectivist organization. Consider Mikhail Bakunin’s
properly dialectical claim that “freedom without Socialism is privilege and
injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality” ( [1867]
1953, 269), or Alexander Berkman’s view that it was anarchism, not Leninism,
that strove for the stateless equality that Marx and Engels promised: “the
greatest teachers of socialism [Marx and Engels] had taught that anarchism
would come from Socialism. They said that we must first have socialism, but
that after socialism there will be anarchism, and that it would be a freer and
more beautiful condition of society to live in than socialism” ( [1929] 1992, 1).
8. References to anarchism in Pynchon’s work reach as far back as George
Levine’s “Risking the Moment: Anarchy and Possibility in Thomas Pynchon’s
Fiction” (1976), but Levine’s classic, setting the dominant critical tone, evokes
anarchism only as a loose conceptual category rather than as a defined political
inclination with historical boundaries. Most recently, in “Escaping the Politics
of Irredeemable Earth: Anarchy and Transcendence in the Novels of  Thomas
Pynchon” (2010), Seán Molloy has noticed that “Pynchon interprets 1984 as
a warning from the Left against the terrors held not only by fascism, but the
fascism within the Left itself, and one may infer inherent in all political life,”
and has connected this insight to anarchist sympathy in Vineland. Ultimately,
however, Molloy feels that Pynchon’s fiction rejects all politics, including
anarchism, because “the ultimate consequence of resistance is futility”
(2010). To my mind, his argument that Pynchon counters that futility with
a metaphysical transcendence of the notion of politics itself runs up against
the representation of the numerous Nazi rocket scientists in Gravity’s Rainbow
who dream of escaping a debased Earth, forming a cautionary tale about
transcendental faith that appears less directly in all Pynchon’s novels. For other
treatments, see Benton 2002 and Thomas 2007.
9. Orwell’s complicated relationship with anarchism is charted by George
Woodcock, a prominent historian of anarchism, in The Crystal Spirit (1966), a
unique study that is partly literary-critical exegesis of Orwell’s works and partly
a memoir of the friendship between Orwell and the author. Woodcock claims
that the novelist “described himself rather vaguely as an Anarchist” as a young
man for nearly a decade before fighting for anarchist militias in the Spanish
Civil War (1966, 26). Even so, the historian recalls many quarrels with Orwell
during the Second World War over the pacifist and antinationalist stances

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of anarchists such as himself and Herbert Read, a mutual friend (26–28).


Woodcock generally seems to feel that Orwell’s notion of  libertarian socialism
overlaps in many places with his own anarchism but that the doctrines should
not be wholly equated.
10. Aaron Rosenfield’s “The ‘Scanty Plot’: Orwell, Pynchon, and the Poetics
of Paranoia” (2004) is the first essay of which I am aware that significantly
mentions the foreword, but Rosenfield is concerned primarily with the
critical conversation surrounding Lot 49. Henry Veggian extensively engages
the foreword in “Thomas Pynchon Against the Day” (2008), referring to the
presence of  “Orwellian anarchism” in Pynchon’s work (209–10), but doesn’t
focus on Vineland. Molly Hite mentions the piece more briefly in “‘Fun
Actually Was Becoming Quite Subversive’: Herbert Marcuse, the Yippies, and
the Value of System in Gravity’s Rainbow” (2010), and Molloy cites it in relation
to Vineland but argues that Pynchon fatalistically rejects all politics, including
anarchism (see note 8).
11. The PLP strenuously insisted that organizational discipline required dives-
titure of any personal habits not directed toward revolution. Nearly all of the
sixties histories I have mentioned observe the irony that the PLP’s distaste for
the counterculture echoed middle American values of the fifties. Bookchin, as
an anarchist counterculturalist, insists that what he calls the “deep-rooted con-
servatism of the PLP ‘revolutionaries’ is almost painfully evident; the authori-
tarian leader and hierarchy replace the patriarch and the school bureaucracy;
the discipline of the Movement replaces the discipline of bourgeois society;
the authoritarian code of political obedience replaces the state; the credo of
‘proletarian morality’ replaces the mores of puritanism and the work ethic”
( [1969] 1971, 176). Pynchon paints Rex’s growing revolutionary tenacity in
exactly this light.
12. For example, see N. Katherine Hayles’s contribution to The Vineland
Papers, “‘Who Was Saved?’ Families, Snitches, and Recuperation in Pynchon’s
Vineland ” (1994). For the most comprehensive of such treatments, see Sandra
Baringer’s chapter on Vineland in The Metanarrative of Suspicion in Late
Twentieth-Century America (2004).
13. See David Kadlec’s revelatory and compelling Mosaic Modernism: Anarchism,
Pragmatism, Culture (2000). Kadlec relies on his own researches into the James
archive, along with the work of historian Deborah J. Coon, such as “‘One
Moment in the World’s Salvation’: Anarchism and the Radicalization of
William James” (1996).

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